Painting of the Day

9 Feb


Primavera. by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510). Tempera on wood panel, c.1482. 6’8” x 10’4”. On view at the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Notes from Stokstad & Cothren’s Art History, 4th edition:

The overall appearance of Botticelli’s Primavera, or Spring, recalls Flemish tapestries, which were very popular in Italy at the time. And its subject—like the subjects of many tapestries—is a highly complex allegory, interweaving Neoplatonic ideas with esoteric references to Classical sources. In simple terms, Neoplatonic philosophers and poets conceived Venus, the goddess of love, as having two natures. The first ruled over earthly, human love and the second over universal, divine love. In this way the philosophers could argue that Venus was a Classical equivalent of the Virgin Mary. Primavera was painted at the time of the wedding of Lorenzo di Perfrancesco de’ Medici and Semiramide d’Appiano in 1482. This theme suggests love and fertility in marriage, and the painting can be read as a lyrical wish for a similar fecundity in the union of Lorenzo and Semiramid—a sort of highly refined fertility dance.


My comments:

This painting is so well known and championed as a masterpiece by Botticelli with rich and mysterious allegorical meaning, but on a formal level, to me it is a very strange painting. If we take the painting at face value and do not consider any of the art history that helps to explain it, it is wholly unclear how the figures relate to each other. Every figure is looking and moving in a different direction; there are divided groups or individuals that seem completely unaware of the other figures in the painting. Even though Botticelli suggested motion in every figure with their legs or arms raised as if they were about to take a step or reach out for something, for some reason the figures still seem absolutely motionless.


In my Studio Art course here at Swarthmore, we recently discussed image making versus object making. Artists engage in both: they make an art object, such as painting on a canvas, that creates an image, and this image serves to mask the truth that is really is just paint on a canvas and not actually human figures dancing in a grove. Pre-modern artists, for the most part, tried to make their image with as much verisimilitude as possible, to make viewers forget that they were looking at an art object. I’m convinced that Botticelli was not as concerned about making his image imitate nature as much as possible. The figures are simply too sculptural, too perfectly posed like puppets, too oddly arranged for this to be true. Botticelli painted the trees exactly as I’d picture them at a school play, making the illusion of Primavera all the more obvious. While I can’t say for a fact why Botticelli would have painted this way, I speculate that he treated his painting as if it were literature written in the limited third person tense. When we read this type of book, the limited third person viewpoint separates us from the characters so that we never feel as if we live in their world. But if the book is really good, it will pull us into the narrative and make us feel unbearably curious about what happens to the characters, however fictitious we know they are. Primavera’s falseness prevents us from entering into its figures’ worlds, but it is captivating enough to keep us staring. 

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